You can say many things about Bob Clarke's Philadelphia Flyers over the years, but you can never say they've made for dull reading.
It usually takes Clarke & Co. 40 games or so to warm up properly, but Philadelphia is off to a banner news-making start, and we're just two weeks into the regular season.
A goaltending controversy and a significant roster shakeup in only 14 days? That's some speedy work, gentlemen. As my incompetent old boss used to say, never delay Â‘till tomorrow what you can muck up today, and it appears as if the Flyers are taking that advice to heart this year.
Robert Esche taking half-joke/half-truth shots at coach Ken Hitchcock, then getting left to languish between the pipes while the Sabres dropped nine on him in Buffalo one night later? Peter Nedved joining Alex Mogilny in the infamous club of onetime NHL stars banished to the American League because of severe skills erosion? Persistent whispers owner Ed Snider is a last straw away from a full-on housecleaning?
Man, they weren't lying when they said things come and go faster as you get older. Next thing you know, Clarke will be denying he needs a big-game, big-name stopper by Halloween, and Snider will be pushing his Â“vote of confidenceÂ” speech up to mid-November.
Remember our pre-season prediction column a few weeks back? Here's what we said about the Flyers, who we picked to make the playoffs:
Â“The unsettled situation in net and pylonesque blueline loom as potential disaster areas. The retirement of Eric Desjardins and Keith Primeau remove two leaders from the locker room and that could be enough to keep Philadelphia out of the postseason for the first time since 1994.Â”
Eerily prescient on our behalf? Nah. Not even close. (Especially the playoffs part.)
Long before Maxim Afinogenov made a human turnstile out of Derian Hatcher, everyone knew the monstrous defenseman's days as a key NHL contributor were numbered Â– and in the single digits at that. And those who discounted the absence of two solid veterans such as Desjardins and Primeau, no matter how much of their games had abandoned them before they retired, weren't paying close enough attention.
But the goaltending issue was easiest of all to predict. It's the issue the famously stubborn Clarke won't budge on, the issue he wants to prove everybody wrong on more than any other.
Somehow, the GM has been able to convince the owner that an elite-level netminder was never essential to a Stanley Cup, and so there has been a parade of pretenders Â– Roman Cechmanek, Jeff Hackett, Brian Boucher, Garth Snow, John Vanbiesbrouck, Sean Burke Â– all of whom showed themselves incapable of accomplishing their mission.
Now, with Esche steaming and Antero Niittymaki unable to claim the starting job as his own, the Flyers are back to square one Â– or square zero, if you count the formerly high-octane offense's sudden inability to score goals.
It still likely won't be enough for Clarke to bite the bullet and pull the trigger on a deal for, say, Buffalo's Martin Biron or San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov. It doesn't appear the GM has it in him to cede even an inch on the subject.
In a way, it's a shame it comes down to the same thing year after year in Philly. There's no denying Clarke has done some great things with the organization, but if nothing improves this year and Snider finally looks elsewhere for a new game plan, the longest-tenured GM and greatest player in Flyers history will have a Groundhog Day-like reputation to live down.
Unless there are Stanley Cup championships waiting at the end of the rainbow, there's nothing more infuriating to hockey fans than the idea of Â“been there, bungled that, covered my face with the t-shirtÂ”. Which is exactly what's happening in Philadelphia so far this season.
How long until the song ceases to remain the same?
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